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New Horizons Update: Astronomers are starting to understand Ultima Thule’s secrets

19 Mar 2019, 09:29 UTC
New Horizons Update: Astronomers are starting to understand Ultima Thule’s secrets
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The improved clarity of this image of Ultima Thule has amplified the graininess of the image when viewed at high contrast. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
The farthest object ever explored is slowly revealing its secrets, as scientists piece together the puzzles of Ultima Thule – the Kuiper Belt object NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew past on New Year’s Day, 6.4 billion kilometres (four billion miles) from Earth.
Analysing the data New Horizons has been sending home since the flyby of Ultima Thule (officially named 2014 MU69), mission scientists are learning more about the development, geology and composition of this ancient relic of Solar System formation. The team discussed those findings today at the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas, United States.
Ultima Thule is the first unquestionably primordial contact binary ever explored. Approach pictures of Ultima Thule hinted at a strange, snowman-like shape for the binary, but further analysis of images, taken near closest approach – New Horizons came to within just 3,500 kilometres (2,200 miles) – have uncovered just how unusual the KBO’s shape really is. At 35 kilometres (22 miles) long, Ultima Thule consists of a large, flat lobe (nicknamed “Ultima”) connected to a smaller, ...

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